Vue de Monde restaurant, on the 55th floor of the Rialto Towers in Melbourne, is one of the swankiest locations in Australia. Located in what was once the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, the restaurant provides panoramic views of the city, and its menu usually includes 14 to 17 set courses with options like “cured South Australian kangaroo with native mountain pepper.”
However, in August 2015, it hosted the launch of the “Ancient Kosher Ben Pekuah Meat Project,” one of the most ambitious and revolutionary kosher products launched in over 1,000 years.
Ben Pekuah is an ancient Halachic concept that is discussed in Jewish law, the Talmud, and rabbinic literature; it refers to the offspring of pregnant kosher bovine animals that are slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. The surviving premature fetuses inside the slaughtered mothers are not considered to be “alive” according to the Mishna and some rabbinic opinions. This means that although the surviving animals look like regular goats, sheep, or cows, under Jewish law they do not technically require ritual slaughter nor the checking of their lungs or internal organs for imperfections that would render them nonkosher. The hind quarters of these animals—including the fats and the sciatic nerves, which are generally forbidden—may also be consumed, according to some rabbinic opinions.
According to some well respected halachic authorities, the Ben Pekuah is a species (like deer) that is not restricted by the prohibition of cooking meat and milk.
Throughout Jewish history small herds of Ben Pekuah have existed with their special privileges known about and utilized, including the fact that ritual slaughter was not required, with the last of these known herds recorded in the 13th century.
Armed with the knowledge that this was a solid Halachic concept with unparalleled opportunities for growth and demand in the kosher world, in 2015 a group of Australian investors, rabbis, and farmers decided to establish a formal Ben Pekuah revival project and decided to raise the first “purpose-bred” Ben Pekuah herd in over 1,000 years.
“We introduced something that had never been done before in the world,” said Stephen Bloch, the former CEO and managing director of Ancient Kosher Ben Pekuah Australia.
Working with expert Australian livestock and cattle farmers, the project raised over 2 million Australian dollars ($1.56 million) from investors and received a multimillion-dollar Australian government research and development grant to breed Ben Pekuah.
The motivation was to allow kosher consumers the ability to enjoy cuts of meat from animal hind quarters, which were traditionally forbidden to them—for example, rump cuts, eye fillets, loin chops, and lamb legs.
“We learned about the existing kosher supply,” said Bloch. “Due to the cost of discarding animals with imperfections, abattoirs around the world tend to process low quality animals for kosher markets and that results in overall poor quality and expensive kosher meat with high wastage volumes, due to blemishes, imperfections, and prohibition around consuming the hindquarters. The beauty of a Ben Pekuah is that you get to use 100% of the animal, and if it is bred with other Ben Pekuah animals, they will retain this special kosher status for life.”
The expertise required in creating a Ben Pekuah herd was not simple.
John Buxton, an experienced Australian cattle and livestock farmer, provided guidance to Jewish ritual slaughterers who made the trek to his farm in Bundalaguah, over 120 miles east of Melbourne. There, under his supervision he established a specific breeding program where pregnant sheep and cows were slaughtered with the premature calves and lambs removed from the wombs of their mothers, under close rabbinic supervision to satisfy the Halachic requirements of Ben Pekuah.
“It was an exceedingly difficult process to get right, it required meticulous planning and attention to detail for the execution,” said Buxton. “Not every breeding program that you undertake works; the first breeding program was highly successful and the second one was a complete failure in creating Ben Pekuah.” Ultimately, Buxton was successful in breeding a herd of sheep and cows that met requirements for Ben Pekuah. “We used the best genetic material we could get our hands on and this was done to ensure that the base herd and flock could deliver high quality product,” he said.
When asked if it was common to slaughter pregnant bovine animals, Buxton noted, “It is not completely unusual to slaughter pregnant animals in the livestock industry, sometimes even large numbers of pregnant animals may be slaughtered, dependent on seasons or conditions.”
According to Jewish law, Ben Pekuah animals, due to their special status, are required to be kept separate from other non-Ben Pekuah animals, because, if a Ben Pekuah animal mates with a non-Ben Pekuah animal, their offspring—forever—will not be considered kosher, even if slaughtered according to Jewish law.
Rabbi Adam Mintz, from Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim on New York’s Upper West Side, told Tablet that while Ben Pekuah is a legitimate Halachic concept that goes back to the Gemara, “whether or not the risks involved in the creation of such herds has a future in the Jewish world, is also a legitimate question.” If any crossbreeding were to happen, he noted, “it could undermine the whole kashrut supply chain—it will be harder for everyone to ensure the integrity of kosher meat.”
This is the very reason that Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, the former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, although principally in favor of Ben Pekuah, decided not to provide a kosher certification to an earlier proposal to create a herd of Ben Pekuah elsewhere in the world. If accidental crossbreeding were to take place, it would create a nonkosher bovine subspecies that could wreak havoc on the global kosher meat supply chain.
The Australian Ben Pekuah project claims to have circumvented this issue by using a three-stage security method to ensure that the possibility of crossbreeding cannot occur.
“We designated farmers to work only with the Ben Pekuah animals, that were housed in specific locations on the farm with electronic fencing,” said Bloch. “In addition, we did what no one else had previously done before: We took DNA from every single Ben Pekuah animal and paid to have the DNA recorded at the the University of Queensland Gatton Animal Genetics Laboratory for cattle, which meant that at any time, anyone could go to our independent auditor where they could confirm with 99.97% accuracy and legitimacy the lineage of the Ben Pekuah in our herds.”
Following the formal launch at Vue de Monde restaurant, Australian and international interest was piqued, with significant interest from Jewish communities around the world. Inquiries flooded in from kosher restaurant owners in New York and London as well as many Sephardic Jewish communities in France and South America.
However, although excitement was at fever pitch and the first order from a major international kosher company had been received, the Australian Ben Pekuah project soon ran into serious trouble: Its kosher certification was rescinded.
“We had numerous meetings with many mainstream kashrut-certifying agencies both in Australia and overseas, including meeting major Israeli, American, and European certifying agencies,” said Bloch. “However, while a majority of these meetings showed promise and acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Ben Pekuah as a kashrut concept and agreed that the Australian team had taken all necessary precautions, they were all reluctant to provide the first formal certification to a Ben Pekuah herd.”
In Bloch’s words: “Judaism is an ancient religion; people don’t necessarily like the introduction of new ideas, and we found that, especially in Israel, the entrenched supply lines were very against Ben Pekuah.”
Though the project felt it was on solid Halachic ground, it had been working with a local Australian rabbi, Meir Gershon Rabi, who operates an independent private hekhsher, separate from other major Australian kashrut agencies. The project also held certification from a dayan, a rabbinic law expert, Rabbi Pinhas Padwa—a kashrut expert who administers kosher certifications for the worldwide network of Belz Kosher. Padwa was even recorded eating Ben Pekuah meat from the Australian project.
However, as soon as Padwa’s association with the Ben Pekuah project was made public, he received numerous calls, and pressure was applied to rescind his certification. “The project was 100% Halachically compliant,” said Bloch, “but Rabbi Padwa got absolutely vilified by people in the kosher world who were protective over their supply chains and unhappy with him involving himself in this project, so he ultimately decided to rescind his kosher certification.”
The project also parted ways with the Australian certifying rabbi, Rabbi Rabi, noting in a letter to the Australian Jewish community in April 2016: “After several months of considered deliberation, the Board of Ancient Kosher Ben Pekuah Pty Ltd has regrettably decided to sever the company’s ties with our founding rabbi … this followed a dispute over certification that began in December 2015 between him and Kosher Australia … and a number of other international rabbinic and kosher authorities.”
When asked why Ancient Kosher Ben Pekuah Pty Ltd had severed ties with him, Rabbi Rabi told me that he did not want to discuss the details: “What’s the point in discussing that? In fact, I am not allowed to answer this question, as it is lashon hara [gossip].”
In response to these developments, Kosher Australia, one of Australia’s largest certifying agencies, also released a statement in 2016 noting: “The concept of raising so-called ‘Ben Pekuah’ flocks has throughout Jewish history not been approved by any rabbinic authority for a number of valid and important reasons. In line with those long-standing rabbinic standards, Kosher Australia has not and does not supervise or certify any Ben Pekuah flocks.”
Without a kosher certification, the immediate backlash to the viability of the project was fierce and the Australian Ben Pekuah project was effectively put on hold for several years.
Then, in late 2017, Daniel Slonim, a member of the Melbourne Jewish community, attempted to start reviving the project and restart the search for a kosher certification.
When we met in person at his house in early January 2021, Slonim was adamant that the time for Ben Pekuah had come. “Ben Pekuah cattle is going to happen: If it is not us in Australia, it will be somewhere else in the world. It makes sense for this kashrut revolution to occur.”
Highlighting that “no one else in the world is doing Ben Pekuah, and we have already developed the technology and have all the systems in place and have already successfully bred Ben Pekuah into existence,” Slonim said that “despite the challenges, it is a natural fit for us to continue to seek a kosher certification.”
At Slonim’s recommendation I spoke with Rabbi Oren Duvdevani, a reputable Orthodox kosher expert who is affiliated with the Tzohar movement in Israel. Through his work in providing kosher certifications, he has worked all over the world, including in Mexico, Italy, Germany, Russia, Turkey, and India.
While Duvdevani is extremely interested in providing kosher certification to the Ben Pekuah project in Australia, he would be doing so in a private capacity, not under the auspices of Tzohar.
Duvdevani has been in contact with Slonim and other Australian Ben Pekuah project leaders and originally had plans to visit Australia in 2020 to inspect the project himself in person, but for now, his plans have been frustrated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Australia’s strict travel and border restrictions.
For Duvdevani, the motivation is clear. “As a rabbi I want as many Jewish people as possible to keep and eat kosher,” he said, “and having lived and worked in the diaspora it is truly clear that kosher food and kosher meat is especially expensive and with Ben Pekuah cattle, we have a unique opportunity to avoid meat wastage, use the whole animal, and avoid problems with ritual slaughter.”
He would be open to working with any international or local Australian kosher agencies to provide the certification for the Ben Pekuah herd, even going as far as to promise to collaborate with local Australian kosher authorities and provide them with “monthly updates” to ensure they are aware of what is going on.
“I will strive to keep any interested local kashrut authorities updated on the project, as it will be people from their community that will be primarily eating this product, so the minimum decent thing to do is to update them and to show that we have nothing to hide,” said Duvdevani.
For now, the challenges to receiving a certification are still great.
As Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, the head of the Australian Kashrut Authority (KA), the kosher-certifying agency, said, “While the intentions behind the project may have been noble, it was in fact flawed from the start.”
In Gutnick’s words, “There was an assumption by the founders [of the project] that the hindquarters of the animals could be used without the normal deveining [and] this would enable the entire animal to be used instead of just the usual forequarter, making the process of obtaining kosher meat more economical and perhaps making meat cheaper.”
However, in Gutnick’s opinion, “this is not the Halacha, while this applied to births up to 8 months old, from being embryos, in fact as soon as [the bovine animals can] walk on the ground, when shechted, the full removal of nonkosher fats and veins would have to take place … [and] of course rabbinically a Ben Pekuah must also be shechted,” or slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law.
But Slonim is not giving up so easily. “There are many rabbis and kashrut agencies who are in principle interested in providing a certification, but everyone is scared to be the first one to put their names to it publicly, as the backlash in 2016 was so fierce,” he said.
For now, Slonim remains optimistic that the project will find an appropriate certification. “This is a kashrut revolution,” he said. “Change happens slowly, but we know that in the future there will be Ben Pekuah that will be widely accepted, it’s just a matter of being at the forefront of this revolution and fighting these battles to establish this as a precedent.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.